“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, regardless of if your body is hijacked by brain sucking aliens, until death do us part.” Those were the vows I made on February 2, 2014. Or something like that.
For almost two years now, I have been married to an amazing man. My husband is kind, smart, sincere, and has a great sense of humor. And my husband has Combat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder–commonly known as PTSD–with alcohol dependency and a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
I am grateful that in our day, thanks to movies like American Sniper and organizations such as The Wounded Warrior Project, society has made great strides towards better understanding just what PTSD is and how it affects someone. But even so, living with someone with PTSD and a TBI can be like living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where anything could be a trigger and you are never quite sure which side of him you’re going to encounter.
During the first three years of our relationship, we were forced to deal with some extremely stressful circumstances, including my husband being imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. We were both devastated by the failure of our judicial system. With no evidence tying him to the crime, and a witness and several receipts placing him out of state at the time of the incident, we couldn’t believe he could possibly be found guilty. We spent countless hours and a small fortune on lawyers trying to fight for his freedom.
Instead of breaking, though, our young romance flourished and grew stronger as we learned to lean on each other. We developed a “system” for dealing with his PTSD and TBI. When he would lash out or start to become irrationally angry, we would spend some time apart and he would focus on exercising or playing video games—whatever he could do to focus his energy elsewhere and come back to himself. When we were both calm again, we would sit down and talk about what triggered the episode, and what, if anything, could be done to eliminate that trigger in the future. Our system worked amazingly well, and when we married, I had no qualms with vowing to stand by his side for better or for worse. I remember thinking to myself, “What could possibly be worse than what we just went through?” Famous last words.
A year after our wedding, we were thrown another curve ball. My husband was arrested once again for a crime he didn’t commit. Luckily, this time they caught the real perpetrators (who happened to be the same individuals who filed the charges against my husband years ago), and they confessed to trying to frame my husband and send him back to prison. While we escaped another nasty legal battle, other damage had been done. The incident triggered my husband’s PTSD in a huge way, and he started self-destructing.
Whereas in past years we had gotten him to the point of only having nightmares occasionally, not only did the nightmares come back in full force, but he started having flashbacks again. On several occasions I walked into the living room to find the furniture turned upside down, my husband in full combat mode yelling at me to get down out of the line of fire. On other occasions, he didn’t know me at all. My husband is 100% service connected and therefore doesn’t (and can’t) work; this is a blessing in that he didn’t have a job he could lose, and a curse in the sense that he had all day, every day, to sit at home by himself while I had to go to work. He started drinking, to the tune of several bottles of liquor a day, and I started dreading coming home.
This went on for several months, until I couldn’t even recognize him as the man I had married. I told my mom once that it was like one of those horror movies in which your loved one’s body is taken over by some alien force. He looked like my husband on the outside, but inside he was gone; something else had taken over. I felt beyond hopeless—I spent hours upon hours calling different veteran’s organizations and PTSD clinics trying to find someone who could help me help him. Everyone was very sympathetic to my situation, but couldn’t do more than offer me the number of a different organization. During the rare occasions he was sober, he would tell me that he wanted to get help—that he needed help—but he was unable to break the cycle long enough to reach out on his own, and I couldn’t find anyone to reach out to him. Eventually the organizations started telling me that I needed to look out for myself, that eventually I would succumb to secondary PTSD and/or compassion fatigue and that maybe the best thing would be to end the marriage.
I prayed harder than ever and started a support group for caregivers of people with PTSD. Compassion fatigue and secondary PTSD are very real, and my own OCD and anxiety started taking a huge toll on me. I was told over and over again that this wasn’t really my husband, he didn’t mean to do or say these horrible things, it was “someone else” acting on his behalf. While that was somewhat of a comfort, it was also infuriating because I didn’t have someone else to take the brunt of his horrible words. He would come back to himself and not remember what he had said or done, but I remembered everything in vivid detail.
I had started making myself visualize a life where I wasn’t married to him, but in my heart I wasn’t ready to stop fighting for my husband and our marriage, and I was desperately trying to find any glimmer of hope that we could have a future. Somewhere in there, my husband came to his senses long enough to see the pain I was in and how close he was to losing me, and that was enough for him to break the cycle and seek help. Today, he is on medication for his PTSD and TBI, and is attending group and individual therapy for his PTSD, and regular AA meetings.
Maybe someday we can get back to the “system” we implemented years before, but my husband will always be fighting a battle with his PTSD and TBI, and I will forever be wondering if I’m going to come home to Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Unlike the love stories of my childhood, we don’t get to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Instead, we ride on the promises we made to each other in our vows, and we choose to find happiness and hope in the small victories.